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Blood spills as truck bomber claims 55 near Iraq mosque

A SUICIDE truck bomb killed at least 55 people and wounding nearly 200 others leaving a mosque near Kirkuk yesterday, hours after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged people not to lose faith if a United States military pullback resulted in more insurgent attacks.

Almost all US soldiers will leave urban centers by June 30 under a security pact signed by Baghdad and Washington last year, and the whole force that invaded the country in 2003 must be gone by 2012.

"Don't lose heart if a breach of security occurs here or there," Maliki told leaders from the ethnic Turkmen community, reiterating a warning that insurgents were likely to try to take advantage of the US pullback to launch more attacks.

Hours after Maliki spoke, a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives as worshippers left a Shi'ite Muslim mosque near the northern city of Kirkuk, a city contested by Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

At least 55 people were killed, including women and children, and nearly 200 others were wounded as dozens of clay homes in the area were flattened. Many people were feared trapped under the rubble, and the death toll was expected to rise.

There was chaos at Kirkuk's main Azadi Hospital, where ambulance sirens wailed as workers rushed blood-soaked people to the wards.

Outside, security officials brandished assault rifles to stop traffic as pick-up trucks raced through the gates carrying more victims of the blast at the al-Rasul Mosque.

Such attacks, including a string of devastating bomb blasts in April, have cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over after US forces depart.

The bloodshed diminished significantly in May, and June has also seen fewer large-scale attacks.

It is not clear if that is due to the efforts of Iraqi police and soldiers, or if it means that insurgent groups, beaten back over the past two years, now lack the organization and support to keep up the momentum.

Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said al-Qaida was now paying people to fight for it. It had also turned to criminal activities to raise funds.

"It shows al-Qaida is starting to lose its impact," Khalaf said. "Instead of recruiting people through faith or ideology, as it was in the past, now they are paying money to recruit people."

The sectarian bloodshed and insurgency unleashed by the invasion peaked in 2006/07, but volatile and ethnically mixed cities such as Mosul and Baquba remain dangerous.

Baghdad has also continued to see a steady stream of bombings, and Kirkuk is viewed as a potential flashpoint for a broader conflict between Arabs and Kurds.


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